Scene from act 3 in the Habima Theater production of The Dybbuk in Moscow, 1922.
The action takes place in an old world Hassidic community in Eastern Europe.
Act 1: An old synagogue in Brinitz. Khanan, a brilliant young Talmudic scholar, is in love with Leah, the only daughter of Sender, a rich merchant. Sender is in search of a wealthy groom for his beautiful daughter. Khanan, consumed with love and yearning, delves into forbidden Kabbalistic studies, hoping to engage spiritual powers that will enable him to win Leah. When Sender announces that he has found a bridegroom for his daughter, Khanan drops dead on the synagogue floor in an agitated state of mystical transport.
Act 2: Three months have passed. It’s Leah’s wedding day. She feels she is surrounded by the souls of the dead and proceeds to the graveyard to invite the spirit of her dead mother to accompany her to the bridal canopy. She is drawn to the grave of Khanan, of whom she dreamed the night before, and though not a family member, invites him too to attend her wedding. The wedding festivities are under way. A charitable meal for the town’s poor is provided, and Leah joins the beggarly womenfolk in the traditional bride’s dance. Leah, weakened by fasting and the events of the day, is led to the groom. Suddenly she cries out in a male voice: "You are not my bridegroom!" Khanan’s spirit has entered her body. She has been possessed by a Dybbuk.
Act 3: Leah is brought to the home of Rabbi Azriel of Miropol, a venerated Hassidic tzadik who is to exorcise the dybbuk from her body. The chief rabbi of the town is called in and tells of a dream he had. In it reb Nissn, the long-dead father of Khanan announced that he has a serious grievance against Sender, father of Leah, and demanded that he be called before the rabbinical court.
Act 4: Same place, a few hours later. The room is prepared as a court, and the spirit of Khanan's father is invited to plead its case from within a chalk circle drawn upon the floor. The spirit speaks of a pact made between him and Sender: when they were young study-mates they took a vow that when they marry and become fathers to a son and a daughter, respectively, their children will wed. Sender, who had moved away, grown wealthy, and lost contact with his old friend, put the hypothetical pact out of his mind and did not actively seek information about his friend’s offspring. The rabbis attempt to appease the spirit, and order that Sender give half his worldly goods to the poor, and that he say Kaddish for the souls of Khanan and his father. Still, the dybbuk stubbornly refuses to depart from Leah’s body. He finally does so only when he is excommunicated. Leah, exhausted, is left briefly alone within the chalk circle of protection while the others leave to prepare for her wedding. The image of Khanan appears before her, and she leaves the safety of the circle to unite for all of eternity with her dead beloved.
1. The play is often thought of as a Jewish Romeo and Juliet story. However, it also raises issues of gender and sexual identity. Consider the plot through a feminist/gender studies approach. What does it mean when a male spirit invades and possesses a female body to a point where the female become a vessel that has lost her own voice. Is it rape? What is the role of the older women? What might a feminist analysis of the play and its various productions offer?
Female actor Miriam Elias as Khonon in the Habima Theatre production of The Dybbuk in Moscow, 1922.
2. When the Habima production was first cast, actress Miriam Elias was cast as Khanan. She was originally selected because of her height and slim figure and was made up to look male. Elias did not stay with the company and the role was recast with two alternating male actors. Still the episode raises issues of gender identity and travestitism. Consider the implications of queer theory for directorial approaches to the playscript.
Seidman, N. (2003) The ghost of queer loves past: Ansky’s "Dybbuk" and the sexual transformation of Ashkenaz. Queer Theory and the Jewish Question. pp. 228-245.
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